Muhammad Ali was not just a phenomenal athlete. Nor was he simply a worldwide beloved celebrity. He was a shimmering prospect of hope for people from all avenues of life. His bravery and ideology, his intelligence and swagger, were greatly important to a vast number of people, particular when these attributes were most vivid, in the midst of his country’s fiercest battles for racial equality. It’s understandable why his death on Friday at the age of 74 was treated as such a gut punch in the media.
Since the sad news broke, there have already been a lot of tributes to “The Greatest.” Rest assured, there will be a whole lot more. When you’re picking and choosing which ones to pay attention to, be advised that this 37-year-old homage from comedian-impressionist Billy Crystal is more than worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch all the way through.
This recording of Crystal’s “15 Rounds” comes from Ali’s 1979 retirement tribute at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. The 68-year-old comedian uploaded the clip to Vimeo on Friday, when news of Ali’s poor condition was starting to circulate. It’s not so much a stand-up routine as it is a one-man play about the history of Ali’s career. Crystal plays all the characters and does all the voices over the course of 15 vignettes—each made distinct by the ringing of a bell. His tribute makes it even clearer why the boxing icon is such an integral brick in the structure of the modern United States.